Battling white supremacy: Expert visits campus to discuss white supremacy, alt-right groups

By Madison Weber ’23, Staff Writer and Social Media Editor

Students marched on campus in September of 2020 after the news broke of Daniel Prudes death after his encounter with the Rochester Police Department. (Photo by Erin Reily)

By Madison Weber ’23, Staff Writer and Social Media Editor

On Wednesday, March 31, expert on the alt-right in America, Mark Potok, spoke to honors students in the Seeing White:White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi Movements class at St. John Fisher College. Potok is a former senior fellow at the Southern Policy Law Center (SPLC), as well as the former editor-in-chief of the SPLC’s quarterly journal. The SPLC is a civil rights organization in Alabama that has a strong focus on data. Appearing in over 20 documentaries and countless media ventures, Potok is considered an expert in his field. With his own father being a Holocaust survivor, escaping from Warsaw in 1939, the topic is something that Potok holds very close to his heart.

Dr. Melissa Bissonette, the Chair of the Honors Program, felt it was important to invite Potok because there is so much tension around those issues these days. 

“There are a lot of people in the media atmosphere that are making those conversations political lines in the sand.” Bisonsonette said it’s not political, really just human rights. 

In ignoring these conversations, Bissonette feels it ignores history that goes back “hundreds of years” and hurts peoples “physical bodies and life opportunities”.

Dr. Sebastien Lazardeux, professor of the class and Chair of the Political Science and Legal Studies Department at Fisher hopes that his students were able to draw two things from the conversation: both that the resurgence of these groups is something to pay attention to and that we as a culture are currently at a crossroads. 

“We can choose to do something to challenge and combat these movements, or turn in a direction where we could go back to our darkest times in history.” Lazardeux said. 

Potok touched on three major issues: 

  • the lack of seriousness taken when approaching the US white supremacist movement
  • the relationship between the US Christian heritage and anti-Semitism
  • different strategies to fight the radical-right 

One of the most important threads of Potok’s discussion with students was the sheer size of the radical right in America, with over 1,000 hate groups in the US alone. The modern day penetration of radical right ideas into mainstream culture is something that Potok explained has not been seen for nearly 100 years. 

“For the past few years, the type of racial hatred, both verbal and physical, has been permitted by the political environment,” Lazardeux added. He feels that this sort of support gave fringe groups and the general public more comfort and confidence in expressing bigotry and racial hatred. 

After talking with students, Potok hopes they are able to understand that this movement is not the result of trivial causes as society often assumes. But rather, the product of major historical causes such as globalization that has caused dramatic changes in the demographics, economic and the cultural realms. 

According to Potok, it’s important for society and the College to have these uncomfortable conversations, so that we can move ahead. “You can’t combat systemic racism by just saying ‘let’s move on.’ We must face the past”.  

While some are angered and disbelieving of Potok’s points, he responds that “ they are not willing to face the reality of what is going on in our country” and calls ethnic terrorism a “very real threat” that is “plaguing our society”. 

Potok encourages those made uncomfortable to “look within instead of attacking without.” Bissonette herself said that “As an English professor, it’s important to me that people realize the words that we use matter enormously”. 

Lazardeux warns that it would be wrong for people not to take the issue seriously, saying we often see them as “random acts of violence”, when in reality they are not. 

The Honors Program hopes to be able to offer the class again in two years. 

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